Engineer’s suspension was the right response

Here’s a head scratcher: How does one design a building for housing school children, using building code standards that apply to storage sheds and barns?

That’s what reviewing engineers say Gary Howell did when he designed the Meeker Elementary School that opened in 2010 and closed this year because of structural problems.

Howell’s attorney said he hasn’t been presented with any evidence that Howell’s work didn’t meet “generally accepted standards of engineering practice,” The Denver Post reported.

But on Tuesday, the state Board of Licensure for Architects, Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors suspended Howell’s engineering license, pending a hearing on his case. The state regulatory agency has also subpoenaed documents from Howell and the Neenan Co., the Fort Collins design and construction company for which Howell worked, and which constructed the Meeker school.

The board’s suspension of Howell’s license and its request for additional documents is entirely appropriate, given the severe problems with the Meeker school and problems with other projects Howell has worked on through Neenan.

He has been involved in the design of at least 18 schools in Colorado since he was hired by Neenan in 2007, the Post reported. He has also worked on the Caprock School and the expansion of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction.

Several of the schools Howell was involved with subsequently were shown to have structural problems, according to the Post. Neenan was able to remedy most of them to the satisfaction of school officials.

But when Meeker school officials were forced to temporarily close their new elementary school earlier this year,  it brought to light the seriousness of some of the design problems.

Engineers brought in to review the project said the building wasn’t designed to adequately handle snow loads, heavy winds or potential earthquakes, primarily because it used design standards required for storage sheds and agricultural buildings, not those required for structures like schools.

Although Neenan officials reportedly conceded that design mistakes were made on the Meeker school, and have offered to pay for the repair work, Howell has not done so. He reportedly was fired by Neenan last month, just as the state initiated an investigation into his work.

Questions also have been raised about why state authorities who were required to review school plans such as those for the Meeker school failed to detect any problem with the design.

We hope the state licensing board can get answers to many of these questions when it holds its hearing on Howell’s license. But some of the issues are likely beyond the scope of the board’s authority and will have to be dealt with in other legal or regulatory venues.

In any event, a full examination of the Meeker school design and the work Howell did on other projects is necessary to ensure the safety of students who attend the schools and protect the taxpayers who paid for them.


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